The Phoenix Zoo Shows You How To Save Water And Money

By Kathleen Ferris

In the last 22 months, the Phoenix Zoo reduced its water use by 20 percent. That saved the zoo $80,000 on its water bill over the past two years and conserved 19,500 million gallons of drinking water for all of us. The Phoenix Zoo saved the water and money the same way any business improves, by changing its culture.

To save water the Phoenix Zoo is not planting winter grass in their Savana exhibit.

To save water the Phoenix Zoo is not planting winter grass in their Savana exhibit.

The Phoenix Zoo is a private non-profit organization that cares for more than 1,400 animals and has 300 staff members, including vendors. Like any business, change started with a committee that had the knowledge and the authority to create a workable plan to save water and, then, put it in place.

It is no longer acceptable for zoo staff members to walk around a puddle of water on the sidewalk as they go about their duties. It is now everyone’s job to stop and find the source of the leak. Then staff members call the right department to fix the leak, whether the water is from a planter, an irrigation line or the bottom of a water cooler.

Staff members now clean with high-powered hoses only when and where they need to, instead of using the hoses to clean indiscriminately. For example, the mountain lion’s night house needs a good high-powered spraying every day to keep it tidy, but a broom or blower is enough to clean leaves from a sidewalk.

Here are other water-saving projects that helped the Phoenix Zoo and its staff to save water.

  •  Landscaping changes. The zoo started to revamp its tree selection three years ago. The trees had to thrive without much water, offer shade for the animals, and provide plenty of trimmings, which are added to the diets of the animals, including giraffes and big horn sheep. The zoo now favors mesquite and palo verde trees along with fever and tipu trees from the arid African plains.
  •  Turf reduction. For the last two winters, the zoo has not seeded winter rye grass on about 6 acres. That includes sections along the main lake and in several large exhibits, such as the Savana, home to giraffe, eland, vultures and more.
  • Timer installation. Many of the zoo’s residents survive the summer with the help of misters, in particular small birds such as the Buff Crested Bustards. The zoo once kept those misters on all night, not because they were needed all night but because no one was around to turn them all off. This summer, the zoo finished putting the animal misters on timers designed for the particular needs of each animal. For most, the misters are timed to go off sometime after the sun goes down and the temperature drops.
  • Irrigation efficiency checks. Zoo employees made rounds to ensure that every irrigation line led to a tree or plant and water gauges were timed correctly. Employees fixed lines that were watering sidewalks and disconnected lines watering trees that had been removed years ago.
  • Rain harvesting. With the help of a grant and the Watershed Management Group, the Phoenix Zoo now has two 1,300-gallon cisterns that collect rainwater running off the Red Barn near the petting zoo. Rain captured by the cisterns is used to water the landscape around the barn. The landscape has been reshaped to allow water to run into swales and washes and hold the water so it can sink deep into the roots of trees and plants. The zoo completed the project Sept. 7, the day before Phoenix received 5 inches of monsoon rain. The zoo is considering using rain harvesting techniques in the landscape designs for new administration buildings now under construction and in the tiger exhibit it’s building next year.
  • Faucet retrofits. The Phoenix Zoo has two popular water playgrounds. A year ago, the zoo retrofitted the sprays and squirts with high-performing but water-saving faucets. The kids never noticed.

The techniques used by the Phoenix Zoo to save water are not fancy and can work for your business or in your backyard. Learn more about the Phoenix Zoo’s conservation efforts and how to implement the zoo’s water-saving techniques.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

Smartscape: You Could Have A Better Landscaper

By Kathleen Ferris

You pay a landscaping company to save you the time and energy it takes to maintain a lovely green space. Twenty years ago, Arizona recognized that landscapers could do more. They could help their customers save money and help cities save water.

With that goal in mind, Tucson Water, AMWUA, UA Cooperative Extension and industry partners launched Smartscape, a low-cost desert-landscape training program for professionals. Since then, Smartscape has expanded from Maricopa and Pima counties to Pinal County and added advanced training dedicated to installing and managing irrigation systems.

A Smartscape trained landscaper can help you create the green space you want by guiding you to low-water plants and trees that match your vision, be it lush or low maintenance. A Smartscape trained landscaper knows where and how to plant trees, shrubs and cactus so they thrive, maintain them properly so they stay healthy, and irrigate them efficiently so you save money. If you like grass, these professionals can maintain turf using the least water possible.

There often are obvious signs that your landscaper needs some training. If you are a homeowner, HOA board member, business owner, or apartment manager perhaps its time to walk the grounds.

  • Are the trees healthy? Are you paying to replace trees too often?
  • Are the plants green and flowering or are bare, brown woody branches creating holes in shrubs and hedges?
  • Does the irrigation system create pools of standing water or muddy bogs? Are you growing mushrooms in your turf or is it dotted with yellow patches?
  • Is your water bill the same as it was five years ago or even higher?

UA Cooperative Extension manages the program and University of Arizona professors, Extension agents, and industry experts teach the classes. Since 1994, more than 1,300 Maricopa County professionals have completed Smartscape training. City, county, and private landscapers have attended Smartscape courses to learn the secrets of successful and beautiful desert gardening. A list of Smartscape trained landscapers is available online.

If you are a professional, it is easy and affordable to sign up for Smartscape training. The 20-hour eight-class course costs $75. Graduates receive a certificate of completion that looks good on any contract proposal.

Landscaping is an investment in your home or business, and a knowledgeable landscaper can make sure it is an investment with a positive return. So ask your landscaper about the health of your landscaping, the efficiency of your irrigation system, and the size of your water bill. Visit for more information about professional landscape training and certification.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

Tempe Town Lake: How (And Why) Did They Do That?

By Kathleen Ferris

Tempe Town Lake is a manmade lake set in a dry riverbed in the middle of the desert. The 261 acre urban lake is a surprise to newcomers and still a marvel to those who were here when it was first filled in 1999.

The lake is the centerpiece for a City of Tempe recreation area that hosts fireworks and Valley parties, team rowers and kayakers, anglers and sunbathers. The lake attracts 2.7 million people each year.


From 1997 through 2012, Tempe Town Lake generated more than $825 million for the city through special events, private and public development, and taxes. From 1985 through 2012, Tempe Town Lake cost $350 million to design, build and operate. The City of Tempe has contributed about 75 percent of that amount. Not a bad return on investment.

image-3.cidThe water stopped flowing in this part of the Salt River over 100 years ago when dams were built upstream to store water for Valley farmers and later for homes and businesses. The empty riverbed became the Valley’s dump. Tempe Town Lake was part of a Valley-wide effort to control occasional, but damaging flooding in the riverbed and to turn the Salt Riverbed into an asset instead of a scar.

Phoenix has two restoration projects in the riverbed with similar goals: the 600-acre Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area south of downtown and the 500-acre Tres Rios Wetlands at the far southwest edge of the city.


In the mid 1960s, Arizona State University students first began envisioning an ambitious plan for the empty riverbed. The students designed a series of locks and channels down Salt River that created an inland seaport. By 1974, the concept for the riverbed was tamed to 38-mile flood control channel and green belt with lakes and streams.

In 1987, a proposed countywide property tax to fund the green belt was defeated by voters, except in Tempe. The empty riverbed served as their city’s gateway and Tempe voters liked the idea of restoring water to the river and making adjacent land usable.

A decade later, Tempe was working with local and federal agencies and other partners to build a lake in the Salt River channel. Tempe Town Lake was filled in 1999 using four rubber dams that could be deflated when floodwater rushed down the riverbed.


It’s not easy digging a flood channel into an empty riverbed and creating a lake on top of it. Here are just a few of the secrets to building a lake in the desert.image-5.cid

  • Water: Tempe Town Lake is mostly filled with water from the Colorado River and Upper Salt River. The lake also captures water from storm drains and rainwater runoff that rushes through Indian Bend Wash. Water from storm drains and the wash bring with it everything that is left in parks, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and streets. Swimming is not permitted in the lake except for athletic events, such as triathlons. The city does additional water quality testing for these events and treats the water if required. The city controls midges and mosquitoes by stocking fish that eat the larva and uses chemical treatments to control algae.
  • Evaporation: Evaporation is a force of nature when trying to manage water in the desert. Shallow lakes less than 6 or 7 feet deep, such as water features in parks and golf courses, lose 100 percent of their water to evaporation each year. Tempe Town Lake is between 5 and 15 feet deep and holds about 3,000 acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot is enough to serve 2.5 average Phoenix-area households for a year.) In 2013, the lake lost nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water to evaporation. That is 7-feet of water annually or 2/3 of the lake’s capacity.
  • Seepage: Containment walls prevent water from sinking into the ground along the western section of Tempe Town Lake. Geology of the land under the eastern section of the lake made containment walls difficult to build. Instead, 10 seepage wells recover water that sinks into the ground and returns it to the lake. At least some of the 10 seepage wells are active every day and the amount of water they retrieve varies. In June, the wells retrieved between 9 acre-feet and 46 acre-feet of water a day. In total, the seepage wells recovered 472 acre-feet in June.

The Tempe Town Lake emptied abruptly in 2010 when one of its four rubber dams burst. It reopened that same year, and Tempe is now building steel hinged dams to replace the rubber dams.

Tempe Town Lake is surrounded by trails and is stocked with fish. It has a Splash Playground for kids and boat rentals. Perhaps it’s time for family day at the lake.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit


HOAs Lower Water Bills, Maintain Landscapes And Create Harmony

By Kathleen Ferris

The Town of Gilbert helps homeowners associations take the guesswork out of irrigation costs. The town’s voluntary program keeps landscapes looking lovely, saves money and water, and maintains harmony among homeowners and property managers. The goal is to stop HOAs from overwatering their landscapes by making their irrigation systems work more efficiently.


Gilbert helps HOAs save on water bills.

Gilbert helps HOAs save on water bills.

Many Gilbert HOAs use treated wastewater to irrigate their common landscapes, but 104 still use drinking water. If all 104 HOAs joined the program, the annual savings in drinking water would be 263 million gallons or 807 acre-feet. (One acre-foot is enough water to serve the needs of 2.5 typical Phoenix area households for a year.)

Here’s how the HOA Landscape Irrigation Assistance Program works:

  • Gilbert’s Water Conservation Office calculates the acreage of turf and desert garden in each HOA’s landscape. With that knowledge and other information, it determines the volume of water needed to keep the landscape healthy.
  • The office then compares the volume of water needed to the actual amount of water the HOA is using. The first to be contacted are HOAs exceeding the recommended volume of water by the highest percentages.
  • If the HOA agrees, a Gilbert irrigation expert meets with a board member, the property manager and the landscape contractor to determine how, when and where to make changes that would decrease water use.
  • It doesn’t end there. Each month, the three representatives receive an email that shows the actual volume the HOA is using compared with the recommended volume.

To begin the program, most HOAs immediately reduce their water use to the volume the town suggests. Soon, specific problems within the irrigation system become obvious when parts of the landscape begin looking stressed.

Gilbert’s irrigation expert will help the HOA determine what is causing these problems, suggest improvements to the irrigation system, and get water use under control. This could mean changing the space between sprinklers, using more water-efficient sprinkler heads, or adding drip emitters that control pressure and ensure even watering. The HOA uses the initial savings from the water bill to invest in improving and maintaining its irrigation system so it can work at peak efficiency.

Gilbert first started the HOA Landscape Irrigation Assistance Program in 2007 and it operated until 2011. Then staffing cuts forced the town to suspend the program. During those years, 17 HOAs joined the program and in 2011 it saved the town 66 million gallons of drinking water. This spring, the town began to rebuild the program and 20 HOAs already are enrolled.

Learn more about the program on Gilbert’s website or check with your city to see what type of help it can offer.

For 45 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit